Louisiana State University’s new recreation center is an $85-million example of how the wooing of students is shifting the priorities of the modern public university.
The Chronicle of Higher Education
October 15, 2017
By Jack Stripling
The only way to truly appreciate the new lazy river at Louisiana State University is to get high above it. From there, its audacious contours take shape. The winding waterway, shaped in the letters "LSU," is encircled by a palm-tree-dotted landscape that feels a world away from lecture halls, libraries, and laboratories.
The river, part of an $85-million renovation and expansion of LSU’s recreation center, is the one feature that students consistently said they wanted most. Yet, nothing has inspired editorialists like this 536-foot-long lounging pool, which has provided an easy target for anyone skeptical of the university’s priorities.
"Frivolous," the Daily Reveille, LSU’s student newspaper, proclaimed.
The lazy river "rolls on, despite school’s budget woes," Fox News scoffed with thinly veiled contempt.
A generation ago, there would have been little public argument that a lazy river qualified as a luxury amenity — a proverbial line in the sand that even the most fun-loving of institutions dared not cross. But the gradual moving of that line represents a broader shift in the balance of power in public higher education. The leaders of cash-strapped institutions feel obliged to service the whims and desires of tuition-paying students, whose satisfaction has become ever more crucial as state support wanes.
On a recent sun-drenched afternoon, a group of dignitaries assembled at the center for a grand opening. Rolfe H. McCollister Jr., a member of the university’s board, grinned and made small talk as he moved through a crowd of smiling celebrants. Sizing up the facility, he said, "Whoa, it’s first class, yeah. But nowadays you’ve got to have it."
That’s the sentiment. Gotta have it.
The recreation center is a mishmash of exercise equipment, dance studios, spinning classes, Ping-Pong tables, and swimming pools. At the grand opening, the center was at its most carnivalesque, as throngs of students devoured free smoothie samples in the shadow of a 35-foot climbing wall. A costumed Tiger mascot breezed through the lobby. Students splashed in outdoor pools, navigating a floating inflatable obstacle course and balancing atop rolling logs, as a nearby DJ blasted hip hop.
For all its appearances of frivolity, the center represents a university’s broadened thinking about the campus as an all-inclusive compound from which students need never stray. Better here than drunk at the bars across the tracks, the thinking goes. F. King Alexander, LSU’s president, said as much at a lectern before the ribbon-cutting.
"Quite frankly," he said, "I don’t want you to leave the campus ever. So whatever we need to do to keep you here, we’ll keep you safe here. We’re here to give you everything you need."
Lazy rivers, while still relatively rare in higher education, are becoming a staple at public universities known for big-time college sports and vibrant social scenes. You’ll find them at the Universities of Alabama, Iowa, and Missouri and at Texas Tech. The University of Central Florida has plans to build a lazy river just for athletes, as part of a "Recovery Cove" that will also include miniature golf and beach-volleyball courts.
Mr. Alexander did not mention the lazy river in his speech. No one who talked at the event that day did. But when asked about it later, he wondered what the downside politically could possibly be. What fiscal conservative, who hasn’t turned on LSU already, would finally lose faith in the university over its opulent new water ride?
"We’ve got nothing to lose," Mr. Alexander said. "We’ve been cut 16 times in nine years. They’re the ones who want to sit outside the university and cast stones."
The story of the lazy river has its beginnings in a white van, bound for Texas in the fall of 2010. Laurie Braden, Louisiana State’s executive director of recreation, ushered a gaggle of students around the Lone Star State in search of inspiration for improvements to LSU’s recreation center. At the time, no plans for a major redesign had been approved or even seriously considered by the student body — but student leaders would return more persuaded than ever of the inadequacy of their own facilities.
The group made a stop at the University of Houston, where a leisure pool comes complete with "zero-depth beach entry" and waterfalls. They got to see the University of Texas at Austin’s Gregory Gym, which includes two leisure pools, a 20-seat outdoor hot tub, and a lounging deck.
Another trip, a year later, would tour similar facilities in Alabama.
"Part of my job," Ms. Braden said during a recent interview, "is to say, ‘You can have these things — do you want them?’"
Turns out, they did want them.
LSU students had complained for years about long wait times at cardio machines, a dearth of parking, and cramped quarters. A consultant’s report, released in 2008, concluded that LSU was at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in terms of fitness space per student. A good number of students, sick of the hassle, threw up their hands and joined local gyms rather than use the university facility.
On the trip to Texas, students saw a slate of new possibilities. Danielle L. (Dani) Borel, who was vice president of the student government, recalls huge climbing walls and row after row of elliptical machines and treadmills. By comparison, LSU’s center, known as UREC, looked awfully shabby.
"I just remember being blown away, not only by how nice these URECs were, but by how many things they offered," said Ms. Borel, who is now a lawyer in Baton Rouge.
But the realities of the budget crisis back home were never out of mind. The fall of 2010 proved to be one of the early chapters in what would be a long story of public disinvestment from Louisiana’s higher-education system.
There was some cognitive dissonance, Ms. Borel recalls, between scouting out new amenities and chasing down lawmakers with camera crews to lecture them about cutting essential programs — something she also did that year. But the recreation project was a long-term vision, way off in the distance, and the budget crisis was seen by students as temporary. "We knew it was bad," Ms. Borel said, "but we also thought it would end."
Even as more public universities pull back from the abyss of the recession, Louisiana has slashed per-student funding more than any other state, a recent analysis found.
As state support dwindles, LSU has passed more and more of the cost of education onto students in the form of fees. The fees help to cover a lot of things that fall outside of the academic core — the campus transit system, a concert series, and the student newspaper among them. (They do not, as at some other colleges, prop up athletics.) But other fees, notably the "student excellence" and "academic excellence" fees, function essentially like tuition dollars without the political baggage of a tuition hike.
[Over the years, public colleges were crowded out, beaten up, and failed to fight back. Read the story of an era of neglect.]
The least politically toxic fees of all are the ones that students impose upon themselves. Who are we, administrators can say, to deny students the opportunity to tax themselves for more goods and services?
That’s how they got a lazy river at LSU.
"We basically told the students, we’ll build what you want us to build — tell us how much you want the fee to increase," said Kurt J. Keppler, vice president for student affairs. "I didn’t have a dog in the hunt. We could have built half as large an expansion. But when we talked to the students, we’re seeing they want a climbing wall, they want an outdoor aquatic center."
The recreation center has no greater advocate than Ms. Braden.
No detail, however small, appears to escape her notice. Moving through the center’s check-in gate, she spots a tiny loose screw in a retractable belt barrier, which she immediately summons a staff member to tighten. Later she politely but firmly asks two student employees to keep a nearby door closed at all times.
"I’m a stickler for back-of-the-house items," says Ms. Braden, a former president of Nirsa, the national association for collegiate recreational sports.
Former students recall how Ms. Braden, on that trip to Texas, educated them on the most-effective shower-drainage systems. No topic in collegiate recreation, from toilets to treadmills, appears to elude her interest or expertise.
With every passing day, Ms. Braden sees more evidence of pent-up student demand to justify this $85-million project. In the first two weeks of the center’s opening, 8,700 people made 22,000 visits, she says. On an August evening, Ms. Braden marveled at the sight of 1,200 students waiting to enter the facility, which had delayed its opening because of Hurricane Harvey.
"We have one of the best student-recreation facilities in the country," she says.
As hands-on as she is about the center, Ms. Braden plays down her role in moving the project from dream to reality. She describes the renovation as a "shared success movement," in which students took the lead.
This narrative is embraced by administrators across the university. They appear eager to ascribe agency to students for features like the lazy river.
In July, when Louisiana State promoted the river on its Twitter account, it deflected pushback with familiar talking points. "The UREC renovation was voted on and paid for by students," Ernie Ballard, a university spokesman, wrote. "It was student requested. Students chose to add a fee to cover the renovation."
That is true. A student-government resolution, passed in 2011, authorized a $135 fee increase over three years to finance the project. By then, LSU administrators had laid plenty of groundwork: They had hired a consultant to do a study of the university’s need for recreational space, which was at the heart of the case for expansion. And they had taken student leaders across the Southeast to gather inspiration from some of the nation’s poshest campus facilities.
"I don’t think it’s as grassroots as some at the university will have you believe it is," said Thomas E. Rodgers, who went on the Texas trip in his capacity as the student government’s assistant director of academics.
At the same time, he says, there was a lot of overlap between what students wanted and what Ms. Braden and other administrators hoped to see happen.
"I don’t think administrative priorities differ from student priorities," said Mr. Rodgers, who is now a communications consultant in Washington. "Did Laurie think we needed a new UREC? Yes. The administration facilitated a discussion, but that’s how most things at the university probably come up."
Popular as it may be with some students, the lazy river is fresh fodder for critics of lavish amenities in higher education. Just as climbing walls once did, lazy rivers feed public perceptions that colleges make poor stewards of state dollars, and that costs are skyrocketing because of frivolous indulgences.
John C. Milkovich, a Democratic state senator who lives outside of Shreveport, La., described the recreation center’s expansion as fiscally irresponsible.
"The effort of some LSU administrators to push for an $85-million recreation complex at LSU is inconsistent with the state’s financial condition, inconsistent with fiscal responsibility, and inconsistent with the prior statement of some administrators that state higher ed is in dire straits," said Mr. Milkovich, who, in 2016, cast the lone Senate vote against allowing college governing boards, rather than lawmakers, to set tuition rates. (Louisiana voters went on to reject the measure). Aware of this sentiment, LSU officials face the politically delicate task of defending an amenity that they seem to prefer not discussing. They have taken to calling the river a "leisure river" or simply "the river," correcting anyone who calls it "lazy."
"There is nothing lazy about the pursuit of health and wellness," Ms. Braden says. "This is not about a river. This is about health and well-being."
From there, the case for the river grows ever more elaborate. The river, she says, might bridge divisions across diverse groups of students. So, too, it might offer the healing powers of recreation, she posits. Ms. Braden, unpacking that point, cites research suggesting that a denial of play may have been a contributing factor in Charles J. Whitman’s shooting spree, in 1966, from a perch on the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin.
"He had a very scripted life, where there was no play involved," says Ms. Braden, drawing on the work of Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play.
If those arguments fail to win over skeptics, LSU has a financial case to make. Of the $85 million spent on the recreation center, only about $1.3 million went toward the river. The university did not take any taxpayer dollars to finance the project, and student fees will continue to pay for the upkeep. What’s more, the recreation center employs about 370 students.
But what makes sense to a university’s chief financial officer may seem less sensible to the average Louisianan, who sees a university crying poor one day and buying a "bubbler lounge" for sunbathing the next.
"The public is not a fastidious accountant," says Kevin L. Cope, a professor of English who served for a decade as Faculty Senate president, "and it sees that a vast sum of money is spent on something that is so much a luxury that it’s not even good for swimming exercise."
As public skepticism grows about rising college costs, Louisiana lawmakers have tried to hold the line on tuition. But states with tight controls on tuition tend to have higher fees, according to a recent study published in the Review of Higher Education. Nationally, inflation-adjusted fees at four-year public colleges grew by 95 percent from 2000 to 2013, according to the study; that’s faster than tuition growth, which is what much of the public fuss is about.
Louisiana State’s tuition remains below the national average for public doctoral universities. But fees are another matter. Since 2000, LSU’s annual fees have nearly tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars, a Chronicle analysis found. In 2016, the most-recent year for which comparable federal data are available, LSU’s fees for an academic year exceeded the national average for public doctoral universities by $281, or 14 percent.
Mr. Keppler, the student-affairs vice president, said support for the recreation fee among LSU students was overwhelming.
"To get a group of college students to agree by 80 percent on the color of the sky is unusual," he says. "To get 80 percent of a group of college students to want to tax themselves to build a facility is a pretty strong statement."
A deeper look into the data that LSU collected on the issue, however, suggests that support for a fee increase of this magnitude may have been softer than administrators and student leaders have described. It is true that three-quarters of students, responding to a survey, supported in the abstract a fee increase to improve recreational programs and facilities. There was far less unanimity about how much they were willing to pony up.
The survey, obtained through a public-records request, shows that half of respondents would support a fee increase ranging from $35 to more than $50 per semester. Proponents described that as a green light for the project. But the report says nothing that would imply support for what actually happened: incremental increases of $45 each year for three years, adding up to $200 a semester — more than triple what students paid before.
Ms. Braden said in an email that "students were in the conversation" about the fees’ increasing each year, even if the survey did not explicitly broach the subject.
More than 800 students, among more than 4,000 survey respondents, described in writing their opposition to a fee increase. Some complained that they would graduate by the time the renovations were complete; LSU responded by allowing alumni to use the facility for every year they’d paid into the system. But plenty of respondents were appalled at the idea of building a lazy river during an economic downturn. One student described the project as "the height of decadence and stupidity."
"This university is in a financial crisis," the student wrote, "and I’m frankly aghast that spending money on this is even considered when the university’s core academic mission is under constant assault from spending cuts. Wake up you idiots."
Many cash-strapped students said they were satisfied with the recreation center as it was, describing it as "amazing" and "awesome."
"This is completely ridiculous and you have all lost your minds," one wrote.
Another said, "If I’m going to support a fee increase, it damn sure better be for my education."
Aross campus from LSU’s shiny new recreation center stands a nearly 60-year-old library that is less a point of pride.
Named for the late Troy H. Middleton, a World War II veteran who returned from battle to become LSU’s president, the library’s postwar charms have been lost to disrepair and neglect. A tour of the musty basement finds bound volumes covered in plastic sheeting to shield them from periodic flooding.
The symbolism is compelling: Here lies the crumbling academic core, just up the road from the funhouse. But it is not as simple as that. The contrast between the two facilities illustrates how beholden public-university priorities have become to the will of students, donors, taxpayers, and even corporations. It was, as big-ticket items go, relatively easy to get students to sign on to paying out of their own pockets for an $85-million recreation center. Similarly, LSU was successful in getting the Legislature to match funds for a $110-million renovation to the engineering building, which found support from wealthy alumni and the Dow Chemical Company.
It is the stuff in the middle — neither water slide nor science lab — that often fails to win political favor or the hearts of undergraduates.
Robert T. Mann Jr., a mass-communication professor at LSU, is ambivalent about all of this. Along with about 350 other faculty and staff members, he pays for a membership to the recreation center and uses it regularly for exercise. But he can’t get past the fact that LSU is recruiting new students with a lazy river while hoping that they don’t look at the library.
"You wouldn’t bring a high-school student here," said Mr. Mann, seated in a fabric-torn booth near the library’s entrance. "But you damn sure would take them to the rec center."
The library is a passion project for Mr. Mann, an old political hand who was previously communications director for Louisiana’s former governor Kathleen B. Blanco, a Democrat, and a press secretary to three U.S. senators.
This past spring, Mr. Mann led a tour of lawmakers through the bowels of the building, hoping to provoke in them a sense of urgency, if not of shame.
"Some of these wads of gum are older than you and me," Mr. Mann says, descending a stairwell. Pointing to some students, he adds, "This furniture is older than their parents."
This is a state funding problem, Mr. Mann says. It should not fall to students, as it did with the recreation center, to vote in favor of taxing themselves anew for a library, he says. At the same time, the university’s administration seemed far more proactive in building support for a recreation facility than in finding money for what Mr. Mann sees as the center of the university’s academic mission.
"I haven’t heard of any university-sponsored trips to go see nice libraries over the summer," Mr. Mann says.
Renovating the library, university officials say, is a key priority in LSU’s forthcoming capital campaign.
Along the river, worries wash away.
A poolside sound system plays a summer-rock soundtrack of Van Halen and Lynyrd Skynyrd, as Alohilani Hall, a freshman majoring in psychology, plops into a transparent inner tube. With teal-dyed hair, a galaxy-print bikini, and a hoop-shaped ring through her nose, she graciously accompanies a Chronicle reporter downriver.
The river reminds her of the ladybug ride, a kiddie roller coaster at City Park in her native New Orleans.
Once inside, the river looks different. The LSU logo, so visible from a distance, becomes a series of indistinguishable twists and turns. You can’t see the whole picture from this perspective.
The broader implications of the project, which demonstrates how far colleges are willing to go to satisfy student desires, are obscured. The changing reality of what it takes to survive as a modern public university, exemplified by a tripling of student fees for private recreation in the midst of a public budget crisis, is unlikely to be contemplated along these lulling currents.
It is from this vantage point that the lazy river’s charms, Ms. Hall says, become irresistible.
"If you get in," she says, "I bet you would be all for it."
- Dan Bauman contributed to this article. Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at email@example.com.